There has been political turbulence in many countries around the world in 2022, just like most other years. Here in the UK we have observed how the last two prime ministers have struggled to have the kind of impact they probably want. Boris Johnson has been found to not being as truthful and transparent as people expect of leaders, and it contributed greatly to his downfall. Liz Truss (together with her Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng) has been found to not understand/anticipate the impact of her decisions on other people, triggering a financial crisis. These examples alone show how important leadership is and how much we need leaders who consider their impact in a holistic way, so that they don’t damage the brand (in this case the brand of the UK), and the people they are there to serve. Leaders should do more than that, they should want to do the best they can for those they lead. Political leaders are on the public “stage” all the time and there’s a lot we can learn from observing public successes and failures of these leaders.
At the end of 2016 we were asked to write an article about leadership lessons from the world of politics.
And there was plenty to go on. The leadership mistakes or misjudgements were plentiful, particularly in the political world. And as we look at the political leaders of today, around the world, we recognise a number of the mistakes of the 2016 leaders (erratic behaviours, lack of transparency and not owning up to mistakes – to mention just a few!) and that there is plenty that leaders today can learn from the issues in 2016. This is what we wrote.
Overall, there seems to have been an appalling lack of understanding people’s sentiments, with political leaders queuing up to take the prize for who had their head in the sand the most, and not just in the UK. It is important to remember that leadership is the act of influencing others. With this, while we may attempt to lead through the things we say, often it is what we do and how that affects other people that have more lasting results. So, what went wrong in some of the high-profile leadership errors we have observed this year, and what can we learn from them?
In losing the US election, it could be argued that Hilary Clinton failed to be an observant enough leader. It seemed like she was not quite picking up on the clues of people’s emotions, and perhaps let her ego rule. Would she otherwise have stepped aside and let Bernie Sanders become the Democrat’s candidate? She obviously misjudged Trump, although admittedly very few thought he would go as far as he did. Leaders always need to be pragmatic and live in the real world. They need to understand what is really going on, they need to keep getting feedback to allow for that, and they need to be open to feedback even if it is not what they want to hear. Clinton also allowed herself to get emotional at times, reacting badly to Trump’s taunting during one of the debates. Here she could have demonstrated greater emotional intelligence, showing more constructive ways to temper passion. Leaders certainly have to speak with passion, while not getting emotional but still be authentic. It’s a balancing act.
One of the key jobs of a leader is to be a visible role model. In failing to communicate or be visible enough in the run up to the referendum, this undermined the official “Remain” stance of the Labour Party. Corbyn misjudged his importance as a role model for his party, failing to create rapport with his immediate team, the shadow cabinet and effectively skipped that level and went straight for the voters. Leadership needs to happen at all those levels – his direct reports and the voters. Where is the shared leadership? He needs to ask himself how can he build trust with his team, as no matter how strong an ideology you have, you still need to include collaboration and compromise with others to make it more likely to happen.
Stepping into the role of Prime Minister at a time of such uncertainty was never going to be easy. Brexit was always going to be top of the agenda, but the lack of transparency in Theresa May’s leadership still begs the question: What is going on? No one knows really. This is a very old fashioned “control and command” way of leading which is proven to be unsustainable. It’s also not what you would expect in 2016. The current situation requires the highest level of innovation, and to get there you need more people involved, not less. You need high levels of inclusion, calling on different and varied ideas. If this way of leading is simply a short-term strategy to get through a period where direction and control is needed then that is fine, but this behaviour must change if she is going to successfully lead the country through the next phases of Brexit.
As the likelihood and complexity of a potential exit from the EU became more and more apparent, David Cameron had an opportunity to re-communicate the referendum’s purpose. He could have made a statement that it should be advisory rather than deciding, but he didn’t, demonstrating a lack of ability or willingness to change. Leaders always need to own up to mistakes and take brave and courageous steps to do the right thing. Of course no one is superhuman, and everyone makes mistakes, but leaders who make mistakes must admit to them or trust will suffer. It is ok to not know everything, and it is ok to admit you don’t know, in fact the best leaders are comfortable and secure in themselves to be able to say that. They also use smart questions instead of giving smart answers.
Whether it was intentional or not, Boris Johnson and key figures in the “Leave” campaign misrepresented the information around the EU referendum. Such miscommunication was not only bad for trust in his own leadership, but it also further erodes trust in other political leaders. Johnson’s reputation for being outspoken about other nationalities around the world must also now put him in a difficult situation as the Foreign Minister. In leadership, you never know when you will meet someone again or need their support, so it is vital to always be respectful, even if you disagree with them.
Many will see Donald Trump as one of the winners of 2016, but his inconsistent behaviour has the potential for serious leadership failure. Erratic behaviour in leadership is not a recipe for building trust. It creates tension, fear and conflict. The way Trump has communicated, whether it is through Twitter or other emotional outbursts, creates a very real risk that he will end up with only yes-sayers around him. When leaders are surrounded by yes-sayers, they are not challenged. This stops creativity and embracing different ways of thinking that would create a better result for everyone.
So, what can leaders learn from all of this?
- Observe and listen: Be self-aware and socially aware. Things change, so you need to understand what’s going on and control the impact you have. See people, listen to them, give them helpful feedback
- Manage VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity): This is Change Management “with bells on,” so leaders must find a way of being comfortable in a constantly choppy sea
- Become really inclusive: Share leadership with others. No one has all the answers so sharing the responsibility becomes crucial
- Be curious and open-minded: Embrace new ideas and different opinions because what we knew yesterday may no longer be relevant or correct
- Lead effectively in the virtual world: Find ways to connect with people and build teams remotely
- Be creative with communication: There’s so much competition for attention today you must make sure you find effective ways to reach out and be heard
- Share your wisdom: The challenges of the future can only be solved if we let our guards down and start to generously share what we know. Encourage others to do the same and create cross-pollination of ideas and new, creative solutions
- Create a learning environment: Be a role model for constant learning
- Develop effective teams (fast!) and use the power of them: People can achieve more together than individually, so rally your team behind your shared purpose and make the most of the unique strengths that everyone brings
- Drive Business Sustainability: Encourage long-term focus and build awareness of the impact that actions and behaviours have on all stakeholders
All the leadership learning points that we have shared here point to behaviours. We may say one thing, but it’s what we ACTUALLY do and how that affects other people that will have lasting results.
Leadership is the important act of influencing others – choose your leadership carefully to create trust and get authentic, powerful, respectful and sustainable results.